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Shields and Brooks on Political Risks, Rewards of Debt Standoff

July 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks weigh in on the week's top political news, including the debt limit standoff and President Obama's campaign fundraising haul.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

It’s good to see you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we were just watching a tough situation in California. We have got another kind of a tough situation here in Washington.

Mark, what about this ongoing stalemate over the debt limit? Does it look like they’re going to reach an agreement and not breach the deadline? What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, anybody who risks a prediction at this point is really just shooting in the dark.

I am hopeful that they will. I think that the more likely scenario is that the Senate works first. I think Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell came up with something that was devilishly shrewd with his proposal to basically yield responsibility for the budget process, appropriation process from the Congress, and putting all the responsibility on raising the debt and the expenditure for it on the president.

It politically puts the blame there, in his judgment, gets the — by the possibility of the government closing down, and avoids, as he put it, damaging the Republican brand with a showdown on the — or a shutdown and damaging the nation’s economy.

So, I think that the likelihood is the Senate will act first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, this is not the plan the president wanted.


So, last week, we are sort of in a high-risk/high-reward situation, where there was the tantalizing prospect of a $4 trillion deal, the big deal that Obama and Boehner both wanted, at least in theory. And so that was hanging out there as sort of a serious addressing of this issue.

The downside of that situation was that we could have absolutely nothing, have default, have a gigantic crisis. I think both of those options have become less likely because of the deal Mark described. And the Senate deal which McConnell and Harry Reid have come up with is less high-risk and less high-reward.

The risk is — less risk is that we probably won’t have default. But there is no reward at all. I mean, it does — it means that the Republicans and members of the Congress do not actually have to vote on raising the debt ceiling. So, they can go home and say, I never voted for that. In fact, there are a few symbolic votes where they can reject it.

On the other hand, there is no real commitment to spending cuts either. So, it is really just kicking the can down the road.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you are saying the president has no choice then but to go along with that, if he can’t get anything closer to what he wants?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if he — he wants the big $4 trillion deal, both for substantive reasons, because I think he would like to put the country on some sort of sustainable thing, track, and also for political reasons.

He really needs to move to the center to win back independents. And this would allow him to do it. And he made some at least gestures toward some really significant offers that I think the Republicans should have taken. But that deal was apparently not available. And so this is plan B.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark, don’t you still have resistance in the House, where you have a Republican majority, big Tea Party contingent who don’t — many of them who don’t think the debt ceiling is something they should take as seriously?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you have two groups, one smaller group that says the debt ceiling doesn’t matter at all, led by Michele Bachmann, Steve King, Louie Gohmert, and a few others.

But you have people, Judy, that looked at this $4 trillion deal — that was Boehner — the Boehner-Obama plan — which would involve some revenues, closing down whether tax preferences, giving those up. And anything that increases revenues in any way is the third rail to these folks. I mean, it really has become that.

I think they will look back, quite honestly, with recriminations and regret that they had this chance to get the $4 trillion, and chose not to, I mean, made the decision, because the votes aren’t there in the Republican Caucus. That is what happened to John Boehner. He had this rug pulled out, beyond the intramural bickering with Eric Cantor, or the perceived bickering, that the Republican leadership denies that exists.

But it is apparent that Cantor has been the spokesman and the leader of that group in the Republican Caucus that is most anti-tax.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the president — and the president, David, is still saying — he said, I put on the table, and he still is, entitlements, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. And he’s saying this is something that Republicans, an opportunity they passed up on.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m not sure — it is a little exaggerated to say he put it on the table. They may have been sitting on the table and they smelled the aroma from the kitchen.

So, it wasn’t really on the table. And so the aroma was of raising…


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it’s not really an offer? I mean…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it was never really materialized.

But it was a possibility worth exploring. And the possibility worth exploring was raising the Medicare eligibility, tying Social Security to a different inflation measure, which would reduce the benefits, and about $1.4 trillion in discretionary spending cuts. So these were serious offers that were extremely unlikely coming from a Democrat.

And I don’t think they are going to be on the table any time soon again, because, if Obama wins, he’ll have no incentive to come this far to the center. And if Obama loses and the Republicans take control of all the houses, no one party is going to want to touch Medicare on its own.

So this was sort of a perfect situation to get the most for what the Republicans wanted, and they still wouldn’t bite.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, do you agree with Mark that they may regret, that they will regret not…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, I wrote a column calling it the mother of all no-brainers. I thought it was the deal to take.

And it’s an interesting — it will be interesting for political scientists to look back on this and why they didn’t take it, because, as Obama pointed out correctly today, the polls show that a plurality of Republicans support a deal that includes some tax increases, maybe 80 percent spending cuts, 20 percent tax increases. A majority of Republicans support that, let alone the general public.

And, still, the people in Congress wouldn’t take that deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, is it clear who has the upper hand at this point in all this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I would say, right now, as of the 15th of July, the president does, because the president can go to the nation and say, look, I wanted to cut. I was willing to go $4 trillion. I was willing to take the sacred cows of the Democratic Party, the crown jewels of the Democratic Party, Medicare, Medicaid, and to really cut the spending there, and they rejected it. I am not the biggest spender in American history. I’m the biggest cutter in American history, and they turned their back on it.

And, you know, I think he has that advantage. I really do, especially as long as there’s this disunity in the Republican side. That’s why Mitch McConnell wants to get it off the table.


DAVID BROOKS: I would disagree with that a little.

I do think, if he had come out with a real plan — and the president is really to be faulted for not ever coming out with a real plan, and for not making the case even for Simpson-Bowles, back when that was around, just to form public opinion. He never really did that.

I think now people are looking at it as, they are all messed up, and that it’s all the incumbents, that those people in Washington, they can’t do a…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think that is how the public sees it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it is — well, it’s reflecting badly on all incumbents.

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I think the president has the advantage. I think you could make the case — and, certainly, John Boehner was out on a limb, and he needed to have something specific in print to bring back to his own people, which he never had.

But I think the president’s good faith, John Boehner believed him,  that he was — about the $4 trillion. He thought it was serious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think, Mark, there was a possibility at some point? This — this big ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats, their view of the role of government — and Ray got into that to some extent with the governors…

MARK SHIELDS: Governors, right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … the Republican and Democratic governors, a few minutes ago — that there was a real chance that that could have been bridged in all this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Judy, it only happens in an odd-numbered year.

I mean, it was — it doesn’t happen in even-numbered years, when there’s elections. This was the chance. Was there a real chance? I’m not sure. I think — I think, if the president had tried to move public opinion — I think he had the Democrats. The Democrats were going to be with him. I don’t think they were going to revolt against him, even though there is skepticism and distrust on the part of congressional Democrats towards the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because a lot of them are unhappy about what he…

MARK SHIELDS: Especially after the extension of the Bush tax cuts and other policies. But I think the possibility was there. And I think we will look back on it with regret.

DAVID BROOKS: He would have had — it wasn’t possible here, but if he and others had spent the last couple of years laying the intellectual groundwork with the American people — I don’t know why they don’t do pie charts. Do a Ross Perot. Go on TV, say, here is the situation.

I think people are used to that kind of thinking, and they would respond to it. But they haven’t laid out the case. He hasn’t — he didn’t embrace some of the options that were on the table. And, therefore, once — it is very hard for political factions to move when the public isn’t there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of you brought up division among Republicans, pointing out you have got the — Michele Bachmann and others who don’t take the debt ceiling as seriously.

Mark, she’s become a darling in Iowa. We are watching her numbers. She’s running for president, the congresswoman from Minnesota. Does that say that there is more support out there among Republicans for this view that debts don’t — that debts matter and that, you know, whatever the — whatever the ratings agencies and the Federal Reserve Board chairman says really can be ignored?

MARK SHIELDS: And the business community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the business…

MARK SHIELDS: And the financial community.

I mean, you can say, at one level, you have got to admire the Republicans in the House, because they are — they are indifferent to the economic interests of their party that have expressed themselves.

But Michelle Obama — Michelle…

Michele Bachmann is fascinating.

I think what this shows is her appeal in Iowa among Iowa Republicans by her all-out, unequivocal opposition to is raising the debt ceiling. But it also shows her ceiling as a potential presidential candidate. I think it will help her in the straw ballot in — poll in Iowa, which is in early August.

But I think, Judy, it really cripples her as a general election candidate, because it is a level of irresponsibility I don’t think Americans would accept in a presidential candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, she ran for a leadership position in the House, and she got a handful of votes. She is not a characteristic figure in the House. She is doing well in Iowa. She is from Iowa. She has got a social conservative base.

People are angry. They’re — you know, this — remember, for this vote, it’s very much like the TARP vote. It’s a vote where we are going bail out some people who don’t deserve it, who — where they are spending on themselves, whether it’s on Wall Street or in Washington, and we are just endlessly being asked to pay more money to these people.

And so there is a lot of cynicism and anger and distrust about the entire establishment. And she does tap into that. But she may do well in Iowa. But the Republican Party is still a normal party, and they are going to go for a normal candidate, whether it is Mitt Romney or somebody else. It’s not going to be Michele Bachmann.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and no matter what the ratings agencies and the Federal Reserve Board chairman says about the consequences of this.


MARK SHIELDS: Well, the business community didn’t — wasn’t exactly captains courageous. They came up to the Congress, said, now, you have got to balance the budget. They didn’t say, we’re willing to give up our tax preferences, we want to close these loopholes, or anything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, presidential candidates — the president himself, we have seen some numbers that he’s raised, Mark, what it is, $86 million so far for his campaign — campaign, combined with the Democratic National Committee.

What does that say about how strong he is going into next year?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it says he’s going have a lot of money. And, probably, in all likelihood, he will have a lot more money than whoever the Republican nominee is, especially if they go through a brutal primary and their resources are depleted.

And it enables you to play in more places, to put your opponent on the defensive, to go to states where the opponent is not likely to have to defend them in ordinary circumstances, but then force him to spend his time and money there.

But, you know, he’s going to have — the money, we don’t know where it came from, Judy. I mean, we have got…

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re starting to see…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, we’re starting, but we don’t know the big donors, which was not exactly what Barack Obama started in politics about, was bringing more big donors into politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does this make him the formidable incumbent?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s sort of impressive.

I mean, there are a lot of Beltway liberals who are upset with him for Social Security, Medicare, no global warming. But out in the country, liberals are just fine with him and they are giving money.

I was sort of impressed that nearly half those donors hadn’t given. They didn’t give last election cycle. And so that is kind of impressive. That means they will have people to carry the clipboards. They have got a good machine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you two are a good team.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you, David, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will see you next week.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.